By Fawn Johnson
April 5, 2016 at 5:30 am ET
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s solution to opening a locked iPhone used by a San Bernardino shooter reflects how public generally wants government policing to work, a new Morning Consult poll shows.
Voters do, however, think law enforcement officials should tell manufacturers about any vulnerabilities they exploit during criminal investigations. (See poll toplines and crosstabs.)
A healthy majority of registered voters (57 percent) say the government should be allowed to “hack” into the phones or computers of suspected terrorists without informing the owners. Almost the same proportion (56 percent) say they support the government secretly hacking personal phones or computers to fight terrorism — i.e., without informing the public.
These polling questions were asked after the Justice Department dropped its lawsuit against Apple Inc. because FBI investigators found a way in to the phone without Apple’s help. The tech giant refused to help authorities unlock the encrypted phone.
The FBI hasn’t divulged the methods it used to unlock the phone, and there is debate about whether authorities should tell Apple how it got in. The public overwhelmingly thinks Apple has a right to know. More than two-thirds of registered voters (69 percent) said the government should inform manufacturers of holes or flaws in their security systems.
The idea that the government can access personal data without permission of the owner and bypassing manufacturer protections may strike fear in the hearts of privacy advocates, but it doesn’t seem to phase the public. Only 26 percent of registered voters said the government should not hack into a suspected terrorist’s phone or computer without informing the person.
Privacy and tech advocates also appear resigned to government snooping on a case-by-case basis as the best solution to fighting terrorism without hurting everyone’s privacy.
Even so, a person’s age has a huge effect on that perspective. Morning Consult’s polling shows that younger voters are much more wary of government hacking than older respondents.
Less than half of voters age 18 to 29 (45 percent) said the government should be able to access personal data without the user’s knowledge, while solid majorities in the older ranges said hacking to fight terrorism is OK. Almost two-thirds of voters over 65 (71 percent) said authorities should be allows to open locked devices without the owner’s knowledge. (See chart below.)
There are also stark differences between supporters of the two rowdiest presidential candidates, Republican front-runner Donald Trump and populist Democratic challenger Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Trump supporters also are far more likely to approve of government hacking (71 percent) than Sanders supporters (46 percent).
There are comparatively few differences among the remaining presidential contenders. About two-thirds of respondents who support Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton (61 percent), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) (62 percent), or Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich (65 percent) say federal authorities should be able to gain unauthorized access to a suspected terrorists’ personal data.
The FBI’s success in opening the San Bernardino phone dampened what could have been a major legal and ethical battle about privacy and national security. The industry universally protested the notion that tech companies should be required to help authorities break encryption systems. That would weaken those protections for everyone, they argued.
The public disagrees with that perspective, as many polls (including Morning Consult’s) showed. Well over half of registered voters (56 percent) said Apple should help the FBI open the phone when the lawsuit was initially filed.
Morning Consult’s most recent polling was conducted April 1-3 among a national sample of 2,004 registered voters. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Fawn Johnson previously worked at Morning Consult as an editor for policy coverage.